Called Extreme Ultra Violet (EUV) lithography, the technology is being supported by Intel, Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices and others as part of an industry consortium founded in 1997 and known as the EUV Consortium LLC. IBM on Monday added its name to that group.
EUV lithography should allow chip makers to continue shrinking the size of computer circuits that are etched on the surface of silicon chips, which in turn allows them to keep boosting performance. Lithography technologies used today are expected to reach certain physical limitations in the next two to three years, which is what makes an alternative like EUV so important.
"When we lose the ability to make smaller and smaller features on silicon, that's when Moore's Law comes crashing to a halt," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64.
Using EUV, chip makers should be able to etch circuits on the surface of chips that have dimensions smaller than 0.1 microns. One micron is equal to about one one-thousandth of a millimetre; many of today's computer chips are manufactured using a 0.18 micron manufacturing process.
Intel, which applauded IBM's addition to the consortium, said EUV lithography should allow it to manufacture microprocessors that reach speeds of up to 10GHz by 2005 to 2006. The company hopes to begin using the technology in commercial production in about 2005, officials said.
IBM had been pursuing an alternative lithography technology called Electron Beam Projection, or "e-beam," and its decision to back EUV is important for several reasons. Not least, it sends a strong signal to the rest of the semiconductor industry, including companies that make equipment for manufacturing and testing semiconductor chips, that EUV has widespread support and is worthy of their investment.
"This certainly assures the industry that it can coalesce around EUV," said Brookwood, who characterised IBM's addition to the consortium as "phenomenally important."
Nevertheless, IBM will continue to develop e-beam in parallel with its EUV efforts, and appears content to hedge its bets at this stage.
"We intend to contribute to the development of both technologies, so that we're prepared to move ... when one of the candidates emerges as the leading option," an IBM spokesman said.
Perhaps not coincidentally, IBM's addition to the group comes only days after Intel announced that it has reached a significant milestone in its EUV efforts. The company announced on Thursday that it has created the first "photomask" for EUV that conforms to standard industry formats. A photomask essentially provides a pattern for printing circuits on a chip, and photomasks for use with EUV must be designed in a particular way to handle the unique properties of EUV light.
The EUV consortium was established by Intel in 1997.